Tim Clark was a secondary school Head for eighteen years, first of a Lincolnshire grammar school and then of an academy in Hackney. He now runs his own consultancy, specialising in school improvement.
The Prime Minister is to be applauded for yet again having made education a talking point, and for emphasising its crucial importance: “it is the best economic policy, the best social policy and the best moral policy”. His education-related comments in his speech at last week’s Conservative Party Conference build on his previous statements about making maths compulsory for all students up to 18.
There is no doubt that the current English sixth form curriculum is much more narrow than that of many of our competitors – and that a future ability to combine academic and non-academic subjects would do much to help achieve greater parity of esteem between academic and vocational subjects
One very reassuring statement is that the proposals will not be rushed, with implementation taking place possibly not until 2033 (assuming that it does). Unfortunately, previous major curriculum changes such as GCSE and Curriculum 2000 were introduced even before the necessary textbooks had been published.
There are, however, a number of issues to be explored.
One obvious result of a broader curriculum is that depth might be affected. An A Level student will typically study each subject for about five hours per week, with time for sport, pastoral education and private study.
Will this still be possible with more subjects on a student’s timetable? It is suggested that students will study three major subjects and two minor ones, so it may be possible to maintain the depth demanded by A Level, as urged by our top universities. When I was the Head of a grammar school, I was often asked by very able sixth formers that they be permitted to study four or five subjects.
Each year I checked with admissions officers at Oxford and Cambridge, and each year the response was the same. Instead of studying additional subjects, top universities preferred students to use any free time to read around their chosen specialism, and to develop a wider knowledge and deeper understanding (plus, in subjects such as medicine, to undertake relevant work experience).
To be blunt, they wanted top mathematicians – not mediocre ones who could also speak a foreign language. Of course, our whole education system should not be geared around Oxbridge, but we must be conscious of unintended consequences, and not damage what currently works. It is often maintained that in the USA, owing to a wider senior school curriculum, many first year university courses are no more advanced than A Level in England.
The Prime Minister has promised that students will spend more time with a teacher, and acknowledges that this will require an significant increase in the workforce. For this, he has promised additional funding.
The issue, however, is a very serious one and cannot be glossed over: we are currently facing a teacher recruitment and retention crisis. The DfE target for teacher training recruitment has been missed in seven of the past eight years with, this year, only 59 per cent of secondary initial teacher training spaces being filled.
At the same time, almost a quarter of new recruits leave the profession within three years and almost a third within five years (and I would argue that it takes five years to really grow a good teacher). Certainly, the offer of tax-free bonuses for those who teach core subjects may help to attract some people, but we must remember that there is a shortage of teachers – not simply a shortage of good teachers in some subjects.
Bonuses for some, might also deter others. And we must be wary of assuming that the lure of additional money is the answer – remember that only 53 per cent of the National Education Union bothered to vote in the recent strike ballot over pay. There are many reasons why people leave or refuse to join the teaching profession. Yes, most teachers would, no doubt, like more money, and by increasing salaries we simultaneously help to raise the status of teaching. But many of the things needed to keep teachers in their jobs cost little or nothing to implement. (As I argue in my paper Better Schools – The Future of the Country.)
A key question is: from where is pressure coming from to change the A Level system? Is it coming from employers, universities, students, teachers or from political SPADS? Simply because our system is different is not a reason to change it. The Prime Minister has stated that because of the long gestation period there will be time for consultation: this is essential. The A Level system is certainly not perfect, but neither is it completely broken. In the past, A Levels have been seen as the “gold standard” of English education and so, if they are to be retired, what replaces them must be better, not just different.
The new Advanced British Standard (ABS) must maintain high standards (be these academic, technical or practical); it must also adequately prepare every student for the next step, be that university, college, apprenticeship or employment, which begs the question as to whether any single qualification can fulfil all these demands.
Finally, although I wholeheartedly welcome the Prime Minister’s focus on education, I personally regret that more emphasis has not been placed on the 14-16 age group. Every year, over one quarter of 16-year-olds, after eleven years of compulsory schooling, “fail” at GCSE. One way of raising standards would be to broaden the curriculum offer at Key Stage Four (between the ages 14 and 16).
This is far from arguing for prizes for all or for a utilitarian approach to education, but such change would recognise the fact that, by offering different pathways from 14, including technical, practical, professional and vocational courses, we can raise standards, improve engagement and, therefore, probably also improve attendance and student attitudes to school.
This would, simultaneously, raise standards in traditional academic courses and examinations as these would no longer have to be designed to cater for pupils of all abilities. Furthermore, promises that ABS will be “knowledge-rich” must go hand in hand with students being taught to develop the skills necessary to use and to apply that knowledge – only then does knowledge become “powerful” or, indeed, useful.
There is much to do and much to consider. The Prime Minister’s vision of creating the “best education system in the western world” in which “no child should be left behind” is both highly commendable and achievable, but only if we approach an analysis of our current education system holistically, objectively and by considering the needs of all involved – students, teachers, employers, colleges, universities and taxpayers.